Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

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Themes and Colors
Mortality and the Purpose of Life Theme Icon
Puzzles and Cleverness Theme Icon
Trauma and Guilt Theme Icon
Superstition and Ritual Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Language and Communication Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Trauma and Guilt Theme Icon

Trauma and guilt are very closely connected throughout Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Throughout the novel, several characters demonstrate what psychologists call survivor’s guilt, which is when people who survive a traumatic event think they’ve done something wrong and feel guilty simply because they are still alive. National trauma is deeply connected to individual trauma throughout the novel. The major national trauma of September 11 becomes intertwined with the major personal trauma of Dad’s death. Oskar and his family have to deal with both the huge, public tragedy of 9/1l and their own individual disaster that shakes them to the core. Oskar feels incredibly guilty about the phone messages that Dad left on the morning of September 11, 2001. Oskar hides the answering machine tape with his Dad’s voice because he is too ashamed to admit to his Mom that heard his Dad but didn’t pick up. Oskar continues to obsess over his Dad, and his quest to find out who “Black” is becomes his way of trying to cope with the guilt that going through such a traumatic experience has produced.

Oskar’s Grandpa is also tremendously affected by trauma and guilt. After the Dresden firebombing, Grandpa eventually stops talking: his pregnant wife, Anna, had died in the bombing, and he has such tremendous survivor’s guilt that he becomes unable to speak. Grandpa married Anna’s sister, who is Oskar’s Grandma, after the war, but when Grandma became pregnant with Oskar’s Dad, Grandpa left her, adding yet another layer to his feelings of guilt. But even though Grandpa doesn’t speak out loud, he still communicates. He has the words YES and NO tattooed on his hands, and he writes notes when he needs to say something more complicated. Grandpa also writes long letters to his son (either his unborn son who died in the Dresden firebombing that he himself survived, or Oskar’s Dad who he abandoned), even though he never mails them.

Many of the feelings of guilt that trauma produces become resolved indirectly through the novel, rather than directly. Oskar does not ever get to say a proper goodbye to his Dad, but the key provides closure for William Black, who has been attempting to process his own father’s death. Grandpa does not get to reconnect with his son, but he connects with family when he moves in with Grandma. Guilt connects everyone in the novel, and though characters might not be able to help themselves directly, they can each help each other. Tragedies might not have a direct solution, but by many indirect routes, the guilt can become bearable. Building community is presented as a way to deal with trauma and guilt: things that are crippling to bear alone can become manageable if there are others around to help spread the load around, if not lessen it.

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Trauma and Guilt ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Trauma and Guilt appears in each chapter of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Trauma and Guilt Quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Below you will find the important quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close related to the theme of Trauma and Guilt.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Isn’t it so weird how the number of dead people is increasing even though the earth stays the same size, so that one day there isn’t going to be room to bury anyone anymore?

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad
Related Symbols: Science, Mathematics, and Invention
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the ways that Oskar deals with the trauma of the Twin Towers’ collapse and of his father’s death is by constructing elaborate scenarios in his head and asking impossible but scientifically structured questions about the world. Oskar’s narration is essentially constructed as an unfiltered running commentary of everything that Oskar is contemplating at a particular time, and his mind jumps among many different subjects, from the ever-increasing number of dead people to the white blazer that his grandmother gave him for his birthday.

Oskar’s narration is filled with direct questions, as though he is carrying on a conversation with someone. Much of the novel is about various forms of communication and direct address, both successful and failed. Oskar asks questions to the people around him, but many of his questions are internal. Oskar used to ask his dad these types of existential queries: they range from the silly to the serious, and the worries have varying levels of grounding in reality, but they always reveal something deeper going on in his mind. The musing about the number of corpses crowding the world shows Oskar’s simultaneous fascination with and fear of death. Oskar does not know how to reckon with the fact that death looms larger in his world at the moment than life, and he wonders how to create the mental as well as physical space necessary to heal. The question also reveals his claustrophobic tendencies, as well as his desire to quantify and categorize everything. Oskar feels safer when he can think about the world scientifically, rather than through overwhelming emotions.

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There were four more messages from him: one at 9:12, one at 9:31, one at 9:46, and one at 10:04. I listened to them, and listened to them again, and then before I had time to figure out what to do, or even what to think or feel, the phone started ringing.
It was 10:26:47.
I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was him.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad
Related Symbols: Telephones
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only is Oskar obsessed with puzzles and believes that his dad has left him a treasure hunt to solve, Jonathan Safran Foer constructs the novel itself to be like a puzzle, placing enigmatic pieces of information throughout the book that only get fully explained as the novel progresses. Oskar jumps back and forth in time as he narrates the events of the morning of September 11, and since he does not name the precise date at first, the reader has to figure out from the context exactly what event Oskar is talking about. Oskar says that Dad has left five messages, but at this point, he presents one of these messages in full. The reader also does not yet know whether or not Oskar will pick up the phone when his father starts calling at 10:26 AM, since this is where the chapter ends. Just like Oskar, who is frozen in indecision and shock when he sees his father’s name on the caller ID after listening to so many messages, the reader gets the sensation of being frozen by being left in suspense at the end of the chapter.

The fact that Dad left messages on the answering machine on September 11, and the fact that Oskar came home in time to hear them, are secrets that Oskar keeps locked inside himself throughout the novel. Oskar hangs onto these phone messages from his father, and they become one of the forces driving his quest over the course of the book.

Chapter 2 Quotes

I haven’t always been silent, I used to talk and talk and talk and talk, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, the silence overtook me like a cancer.

Related Characters: Grandpa (speaker)
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, which is the first sentence of Grandpa’s letter to his son, Oskar’s father, Grandpa explains that he used to talk incessantly. Now, post-traumatic stress disorder has made Grandpa unable to speak, so he has to write to communicate anything that he wants to say. Grandpa has been writing this letter for many decades, but after September 11, he will never be able to give it to Oskar’s father. However, he cannot stop attempting to reach out. Everything that he has been unable to say aloud has built up within him, and he feels compelled to try and say everything.

Even though Grandpa can no longer speak, he has an infinite amount that he wants to express. Grandpa writes in long, run-on sentences with phrases connected by commas, which creates a sensation of urgency, as if he is trying to atone for his many years of silence. Throughout the novel, characters have a lot of difficulty communicating with each other effectively. Sometimes, too many words might not express anything at all, whereas a gesture or a look can say everything that needs to be said. Talking all the time can prove to be more of a defense mechanism than a method of true communication. In the past, even though Grandpa talked all the time, he failed to listen, and therefore to communicate emotions.

Chapter 3 Quotes

And maybe you could rate the people you knew by how much you loved them, so if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker)
Related Symbols: Science, Mathematics, and Invention
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

The devices that Oskar imagines are often whimsical and seem tangential, but they typically represent something that is deeply important to Oskar’s subconscious mind. In the case of the ambulance siren that blasts an important message from the person dying inside, the invention represents an idealized version of the messages that Oskar’s father left on the answering machine on September 11. Oskar feels incredibly guilty both that his father left these messages and that Oskar didn’t pick up the phone when he had the final opportunity to speak to his father. Oskar is preoccupied with getting closure for his father’s death, and he wishes that his father had left a very clear message saying goodbye, rather than a series of messages asking if anyone were there to pick up the phone. Oskar knows that he could not have done anything to stop his father’s death, but he still feels guilty because the final words from his father were so unresolved. An ambulance siren that blasts canned but unambiguous messages to loved ones would help those left behind feel more at peace and able to move forward, rather than being trapped in an emotional limbo land.

Chapter 6 Quotes

I have so much to tell you, the problem isn’t that I’m running out of time, I’m running out of room, this book is filling up, there couldn’t be enough pages, I looked around the apartment this morning for one last time and there was writing everywhere, filling the walls and mirrors, I’d rolled up the rugs so I could write on the floor, I’d written on the walls and around the bottles of wine we were given but never drank, I wear only short sleeves, even when it’s cold, because my arms are books, too. But there’s too much to express. I’m sorry.

Related Characters: Grandpa (speaker), Grandma
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

The idea of Grandpa running out of room to write things down echoes Oskar’s question in the beginning of the novel about what will happen when the number of dead people in the world outpaces the amount of room available to contain all the bodies. Because Grandpa is writing to his unborn son, he is not afraid of running out of time, but rather running out of space. Ironically, however, he does not ultimately run out of space but instead out of time. The letter to Oskar’s father continues for forty years, but before Oskar’s father gets to read it, he is killed on September 11.

Grandpa expresses his desperate need to convey as much information as possible to assuage his guilt at leaving his pregnant wife and never meeting his unborn child. However, the only emotion he really needs to say is “I’m sorry.” These two words carry a huge, rich emotional truth, and the rest of Grandpa’s information is more for Grandpa’s sake than the letter’s addressee. Grandpa needs to feel cleansed by purging all his traumatic history, and the letter represents a way for him to put down for posterity all the things that Grandpa can no longer say out loud. Grandpa has psychologically lost his ability to speak due to post-traumatic stress disorder, and this combined with his guilt of abandonment compel him to try and atone for the past by recording as much as possible.

Chapter 7 Quotes

I felt, that night, on that stage, under that skull, incredibly close to everything in the universe, but also extremely alone. I wondered, for the first time in my life, if life was worth all the work it took to live. What exactly made it worth it? What’s so horrible about being dead forever, and not feeling anything, and not even dreaming? What’s so great about feeling and dreaming?

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker)
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

In his school’s production of Hamlet, Oskar portrays Yorick, the dead jester whose skull gets exhumed in the final act of the play. Playing the role of a dead character is both funny and morbid, given Oskar’s fascination with death and obsession with the death of his father throughout the novel. Oskar is precocious and hyper-verbal, as his narration demonstrates, yet a great deal of his brilliance stays inside his own imagination. The reader gets to see what he is thinking about, but the outside world doesn’t get access to Oskar’s mind. For Hamlet, Yorick’s “infinite jest” can now only exist in the imagination, since Yorick is dead. Oskar can only recall his father in memory, rather than interacting with him in real life.

Beyond the character of Yorick, there are several parallel themes between Hamlet and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Just like Hamlet, Oskar is haunted by the ghost of his father. Oskar is angry at his mother for beginning a relationship with another man soon after his dad died. Oskar’s meditations about feeling and dreaming echo Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, in which Hamlet wonders aloud whether it is worth it to live or die—"to sleep, perchance to dream," as Oskar almost says here.

But still, it gave me heavy, heavy boots. Dad wasn’t a Great Man, not like Winston Churchill, whoever he was. Dad was just someone who ran a family jewelry business. Just an ordinary dad. But I wished so much, then, that he had been Great. I wished he’d been famous, famous like a movie star, which is what he deserved. I wished Mr. Black had written about him, and risked his life to tell the world about him, and had reminders of him around his apartment.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad, Mr. Black
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, “heavy boots” are a personal metaphor for the sadness and guilt that Oskar undergoes, primarily due to the trauma of his father’s death and the events that unfold from that. Oskar spends a great deal of the novel walking around New York City to process his trauma, and he expresses his psychological burdens physically. The phrase “heavy boots” refers to both sadness and guilt for Oskar. “Heavy boots” is also subtly reminiscent of World War II, as the phrase could potentially evoke the army, or people marching through concentration camps in chains. Oskar is likely not aware of this association, but throughout the novel, the parallel trauma to September 11 is the Dresden bombing, and “heavy boots” calls to mind images of war prisoners and war as well as personal guilt and the feeling of "heaviness" that comes with depression or grief.

Oskar wishes that Mr. Black somehow magically had a card about his father, since this would prove that Dad had planted the key as a clue for Oskar to trace around New York City. Oskar’s description of the writing that he wants to see about his father is, however, a description of the very novel that the reader is reading.

Chapter 12 Quotes

I lowered the volume until it was silent.
The same pictures over and over.
Planes going into buildings.
Bodies falling.

Related Characters: Grandma (speaker)
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

On September 11, Grandma watched the same image unfold over and over, and to replicate that experience for the reader, Jonathan Safran Foer repeats the phrases “Planes going into buildings” and “Bodies falling” several times, on two consecutive pages. The parallel list construction ultimately creates the effect of two towers of text. Towers get built on the page just as Grandma watches them get destroyed, over and over, in real life. Although they are gone in reality, they are burned into her imagination. Similarly, although the reader does not yet know this, the doorknob from Dresden is burned into Grandpa’s memory, and he finds himself seeing this image repeated over and over. Though something might be gone in reality, the image and the imagination can make it happen again over and over, for better or for worse.

The same image of bodies falling from the towers appears at the end of the novel. However, instead of repeating the action that Grandma saw over and over, the novel presents a flipbook with an alternate reality of a person falling up, rather than down. This is an unrealistic reordering of events, and while it does depict a glimmer of hope, ultimately, everybody must move forward with the reality of what actually happened.

Chapter 13 Quotes

I want to stop inventing. If I could know how he died, exactly how he died, I wouldn’t have to invent him dying…There were so many different ways to die, and I just need to know which was his.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Grandpa, Dad
Related Symbols: Science, Mathematics, and Invention
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, invention and telling stories have been a source of comfort and security for Oskar. However, in the quest to come to terms with his father’s death, Oskar is frustrated by his fruitless obsession with imagined scenarios, and he wants the truth to set him free. He fixates on his father’s mode of death because it provides a concrete clue that gives him focus and purpose, rather than the depressing concept of seeing everything as a meaningless void. Oskar gets the idea to dig up his father’s coffin, which makes Oskar's role in Hamlet as the dead skull of Yorick all the more symbolically, if morbidly, appropriate.

Oskar is speaking to a man whom he calls “the renter,” since he only knows him as the man who is staying with Grandma. Unbeknownst to Oskar, however, “the renter” is actually Oskar’s grandfather, and although he thinks he is entrusting his story with a stranger, he is instead confiding to his father’s father, which is about the closest to his father that he can get in real life.

Chapter 14 Quotes

I was in Dresden’s train station when I lost everything for the second time.

Related Characters: Grandpa (speaker)
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, the Dresden firebombing during World War II is the trauma that serves as the parallel precursor to the trauma of September 11. Grandpa and Grandma both lost a beloved person in their lives: Anna, Grandma’s sister and Grandpa’s lover. Being in the Dresden train station is also a parallel setting to the airport where Grandma and Grandpa reveal they have been throughout the entire novel. Both train stations and airports are points of transportations, empty spaces where people are coming and going. On the one hand, just like the space between the boroughs that could seem like a gaping void, train stations and airports belong nowhere and are a kind of black hole. On the other hand, these places have infinite potential, and any number of universes could unfold from them.

Even though the statement that one has lost everything a second time is very depressing, it also contains hope within it. To have lost everything twice means that even if someone loses everything once, that person can create a new life. Losing everything twice is, in some ways, doubly sad, yet if a life was rebuilt once, it can be built again.

There won’t be enough pages in this book for me to tell you what I need to tell you, I could write smaller, I could slice the pages down their edges to make two pages, I could write over my own writing, but then what?

Related Characters: Grandpa (speaker), Dad
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:

Grandpa continues to write his letter, and Foer represents this writing visually in the novel by making the font smaller and smaller, so that the words crowd on the page until they blend together into an illegible black square. Infinite stories are crammed into a finite space, which makes everything disappear into itself. The visual image of trying to cram in as much writing as possible in one book, even writing over previous writing, creates a visual echo of journals by people in the Holocaust. Writers such as Anne Frank often lacked access to blank paper, so they had to resort to cramped script and to writing over their own words.

This desire to cram everything into the book also gives another layer of meaning to the book’s title. The writing is a visual representation of being extremely loud and incredibly close, and there is so much writing on the page that the reader feels very overwhelmed and unable to absorb any of the information presented. Grandpa feels terribly guilty that he has not been able to communicate with his son and his wife, and to try and assuage his sensations of guilt, he wants to keep reaching out his line of communication, even though continuing to push information through won’t bring back the person who is supposed to be on the other end of the line.

Chapter 15 Quotes

He needed me, and I couldn’t pick up. I just couldn’t pick up. I just couldn’t. Are you there? He asked eleven times. I know, because I’ve counted. It’s one more than I can count on my fingers….Sometimes I think he knew I was there. Maybe he kept saying it to give me time to get brave enough to pick it up.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad, William Black
Related Symbols: Telephones
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

When Oskar gives William Black the key from the vase, Oskar symbolically unlocks the secret that he has been carrying inside him throughout his entire quest. Oskar confesses to William that his father had called their family’s phone right until the moment that the Twin Towers came down. By telling William his secret as well as giving William the actual key, the key has fulfilled its purpose in the novel, both physically and symbolically.

As it turns out, Oskar had the answer to the mystery of the key for nearly the entirety of his quest, but he didn’t know it. Abby Black had left Oskar a message on the answering machine, but Oskar had been too traumatized to listen, because he was haunted by the guilt of his father’s voice on that same answering machine. But Oskar’s mom had heard Abby’s message, and, unbeknownst to Oskar, had been calling every person named Black in the city and preparing him or her for Oskar’s visit. When Oskar gives away the physical key, he not only relieves himself of his burden, but he also unlocks the closed door between himself and his relationship with his mother.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar.
It’s always necessary.
I love you,
Grandma

Related Characters: Grandma (speaker), Oskar Schell
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, Oskar’s grandmother has been writing a long letter to Oskar to try and tell him about her past and her relationship with Oskar’s grandfather, which is very difficult for her to talk about. This quote is the ending of the letter. Oskar’s grandmother and grandfather have finally reunited, and they are sitting across from each other in the airport, typing on their respective typewriters. Part of the reason that Oskar has been so obsessed with searching for clues about his father is that he wants to find some closure and so that he can feel at peace with their relationship. Oskar never got to say goodbye before his father died, a fact which haunts Oskar—and this lack of clarity and closure plagues many relationships throughout the novel. Oskar’s grandmother and grandfather have a very troubled relationship in part because they cease being able to communicate with each other, and there are so many walls between them.

Oskar’s grandmother doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, and so she makes sure to communicate everything that she can to Oskar, or everything that she feels like she hasn’t previously been able to say, in this letter. “It’s always necessary” refers, in context, to the fact that she wished she had been able to say “I love you” to her sister. Grandma is determined not to make that mistake with Oskar. Rather than assume that there will always be more time in the future to say what she really means, Grandma takes the time now to express her feelings in the present. Grandma is trying to reassure Oskar and provide closure so that he and she both don’t obsessively try to rewind time.

Chapter 17 Quotes

I’d have said “Dad?” backwards, which would have sounded the same as “Dad” forward.
He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from “I love you” to “Once upon a time…”
We would have been safe.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

The last words of the novel express the desired fulfillment of many of Oskar’s deepest wishes. Oskar longs to turn back time and reverse the course of history so that his father wouldn’t have had to die on September 11. By rewinding and telling the story backwards, Oskar wants to take control over uncontrollable events so that history can unfold in a different direction. But these final words also express the fact that Oskar’s wishes can’t be fulfilled. The quotation is in the subjunctive mood, rather than the indicative, which demonstrates that Oskar is presenting a wish rather than a fact. Throughout the novel, Oskar has learned that we can’t actually go back and reverse the course of history. Even though the book ends in a fantasy description of what Oskar wishes the world could be like, the reader knows that we have to move forward in reality.

Although these are the last words in the book, they are not the book’s ending. The book concludes with several photographs of a person falling from the Twin Towers, but arranged in reverse order, so that if the reader flips through them, the person appears to be falling up instead of down. This reversal of the familiar image shows the tension between fantasy and the poignant reality that all characters struggle with throughout the novel. Even though they wish they could reverse time and space in certain key moments, and even though they replay events in their minds, they have to figure out some way of moving forward in order to heal.